Interview with Jacques Rivette
Serge Daney and Jean Narboni
translated by Louisa Shea
Production schedule and micro-systems
Jacques Rivette ... There are very few directors in France who really control their production schedule; Franois (Truffaut) aside, there's really only Rohmer and Lelouch, those, that is, who created a studio that belongs to them in part or in full, and that allows them to work on short, mid and long-term projects. I think that all other directors lose three quarters of their time between films, and that's when one isn't happy ... The question of one's production schedule is always a tricky one.
Cahiers. And you think it's time lost?
Rivette. I'm not saying it's necessarily lost time, but more often than not, it's not the happiest of times... Half of the time is spent asking oneself, what project can I envision given the circumstances, the possibilities, the state of French cinema in general and one's own state in particular? And then, once one thinks one's found a viable project, how will one pull it off? And, will the project, when it finally becomes reality, lead to other things and how? It's not always easy to live through, but, well, it's the same for everyone ...
Cahiers. And you think it's always been this way?
Rivette. The feeling I have is that it's become increasingly difficult in the past few years, and that it will become even more so because there are more and more directors, real and potential. In a certain sense that's a good thing and there's no reason to establish a system of obstacles. But at the same time, I read this in Le Monde yesterday or today, there is sense of triumph, of euphoria in French cinema because last year there were 160 films and this year 180 ... But of these 180, how many will be seen outside Paris, be it only in France's big cities?
Cahiers. There are two films of yours, Noroît and Merry-Go-Round, that have still not been released.
Rivette. They might very well have been released; but it so happened that Gaumont, in its capacity as distribution house, didn't think they would bring in a large audience. Maybe they're right, from their point of view. At the same time, they got caught up in the mess with Tchalgadjieff and now they are stuck because of Stéphane's insolvency. But these things happen to other films too. This time, however, it happened to two films, one after the other, same story each time.
But in a sense -- and this is a very selfish point of view -- I didn't really do anything to ensure their release. Because the release for instance of Duelle, which was not an easy film to release, was done so clumsily that I would almost have preferred if the film had stayed in its boxes ... I was more handicapped, personally, even purely egoistically, by the failure of Duelle than I was by the non-release of Noroît and Merry-Go-Round. It gives one a stronger sense of rejection, of error of course too. No, what's really bothersome is that nearly all directors are at the mercy of such things. We were speaking earlier of Truffaut, Lelouch or Rohmer; they had the wits to construct something-it wasn't a gift bestowed upon them-a form, a micro-system that allows them to immediately overcome this type of misfortune, like La Chambre Verte for Truffaut, or Perceval for Rohmer; as for Lelouch, there are many examples. But for me, and for almost everyone, it's very difficult to carry on and begin again; and I consider myself privileged, in so far as I've been able remake several films that hadn't been released, or had been but poorly so, and recently to remake another, thanks to the good will of the actors and the technicians, even though we had to film in very poor conditions.
I remember a conversation I had with Serge one evening when we'd met by chance, two years ago. You said something I found both fair and unfair. It was, I believe, about Chabrol. You said that the director's job was to film, so what you liked about Chabrol was that he was a director who filmed incessantly, like Raoul Walsh, or whoever it was. I know it's true of directors like Lelouch, Truffaut and Rohmer, who has barely stopped since the Contes moraux. But I think there are many directors who would say; "Most gladly! OK, but how?"
Cahiers. Then we have to come back to this idea of the micro-system. Were you conscious, at one time or another, that you were not creating your production micro-system and that you were proceeding a little haphazardly?
Rivette. No, I was often tempted to create one. Not tempted strongly enough no doubt, since I never succeeded, never saw the attempt through. I never felt that I had the will, or would take any pleasure in handling the financial mechanisms necessary to found a production house. It's not even a question of means, it's a question of affinity for such things. Let's say that with someone like Tchalgadjieff, I thought for a number of years that I could have, like Chabrol with Génovès, a relationship with someone who trusted me -- rightly or wrongly -- and who didn't want to know what the next film would be but only: who would be in it, how much it would cost, if the project was feasible or not, and who would then try to get things rolling. Unfortunately, of that breed of producer, there are hardly any left; they've all gone down the drain. That's been the Centre's official policy in the past five years: to unseat them. It's a systematic policy that coincided at its beginning with the departure of Chausserie Laprée; it's not for nothing that the was thanked prematurely ...
Cahiers. When one speaks to Truffaut of his job or career, these are words he accepts. How about you, would you say, it's my passion?
Rivette. That's a question I've always avoided.
Cahiers. Because you see, what you call micro-systems, they make it so that a director can continue to work, to live his passion ...
Rivette. Certainly, and I am now punished for not having created one. At least relatively speaking, because, once again, I consider myself privileged compared to many.
The history of cinema is a series of misunderstandings
Cahiers. Your films, we've followed them from the beginning as so many experiments in how far one could go in this or that direction.
Rivette. Not necessarily. In fact, it's less true of my latest films, and maybe that's what makes them less interesting. It's possible.
Cahiers. What strikes us about your films, is that they represent an almost exhaustive spectrum of all possible scenarios. You began with a disaster of near apocalyptic dimension, a financial failure that was also a mythical film, Paris nous appartient ...
Rivette. Paris nous appartient, in the end, was a happy event ... I never experienced it as a curse, because from the start, before it was even finished, thanks to Franois and others, it gained a legendary aspect, so it was very good ...
Cahiers. Then came La Religieuse, which met with yet a different reception: here was a banned film, a scandal, etc... Rivette. It's the contrary of Paris nous appartient, in a sense. Because, on one hand, it was a big commercial success, it's even the only one of my films that met with real success; but it was one misunderstanding after another from beginning to end.
Cahiers. Then, a moderate success, L'Amour fou ...
Rivette. L'Amour fou was, for the producers, I think, more or less a complete failure, in part because of their own clumsiness. For me, everything went very well, except that it wasn't well distributed. but it was seen, after all. That's all one asks for.
Cahiers. Then, another mythical film, but one that was not seen, Out One, then a film that rode the wave of the moment, feminist, leftist, etc., Céline et Julie vont en bateau, then another release that flopped, Duelle, then two more films that weren't released and now another ...
Rivette. What is it that strikes you in all this, the incoherence?
Cahiers. No. The plasticity!
Rivette. If you had accused me of incoherence, I could have accepted ...
Cahiers. No, it's rather that the films of Jacques Rivette are very different one from another, meet with different fortunes ...
Rivette. In the beginning, they tried to be. Now, I am more sensitive to their repetitive aspects. That said, it's true that no two films were put together in the same way. Except for the little series with Stéphane, Duelle, Noroît ... and even then, we weren't able to see the project through! Each of them represents a particular case, as Le Monde always puts it, from the film thrown together with little money from François, a little film stock from Chabrol and a 'let's see what happens' attitude, to the very normal production of La Religieuse. The others are in-between, like L'Amour fou, a film that started out as a small, normal production and became a monster-by my own doing. And then there are others that benefited from particularly favorable conditions that couldn't exist anymore today, like Out One, or the series Duelle, Noroît. We obtained almost miraculous advances on projects of only three pages, thanks, I take it, to the previous film.
Cahiers. You mean that today, it's no longer possible to have the same experience in cinema as you had in the past?
Rivette. It's still possible, but no longer in the climate of tolerance and relative comfort of back when. In the past twenty years, there have been roughly speaking three periods. I'm not speaking about cinema as one discovered it in the 50s and into which it was impossible for us to enter. There was the cinema of the early 60s, a transitional cinema that gave us the first films of the so-called Nouvelle Vague, although the old system of distribution-production remained fairly strong. Even people like Beauregard established themselves by taking their place on the inside, alongside the old distributors of the 50s who were still around. It's at end of the 60s that it all came crashing down. In the early 70s, the Center's policy of Advances was toppled. In 1967, L'Amour fou had been refused on the basis of a thirty-page script, even though it had a classical, well developed, storyline that allowed one to get a good sense, it seems to me, of what the film would be like. By contrast the project for Out One, of 4 pages only, purely abstract, theoretical, was accepted in 1970, as was the four-film series I had proposed in 1975.
Cahiers. So that's the second period?
Rivette. Yes. But at the same time, it created a bit of a scandal, the advance we'd received for the four films in '75. You see, it was the end of an epoch. We'd received 50 million, that's 200 million old francs. They're been advances of more than 50, even 100 million, be it only for Bresson; but it was the fact that we got four at one go that caused the scandal. It cost us very dearly and we haven't finished paying off our debt, Stéphane and I. In a certain sense, when we presented ourselves before the Commission on Advances, in early '75, everyone knew that the Commission in question was coming to an end, and there were people who were sympathetic to us and who gave us, so to speak, a farewell gift. In retrospect, it was a very open period. In the years following 1968, for reasons of bad conscience, the cinema milieu in France and throughout the world tried to integrate into the system people who hadn't previously been part of it, only to subsequently reject them. There was a period of five or six years during which one could do much; then everything was rebuilt. I think now that we were very clumsy because we didn't know how to make he most of it ... But could one have done more? Maybe it was all an illusion. Maybe Céline is the most one could do; but Out One, the series of four films, no: one could embark on such a project but there were sanctions to be paid. I believe that what was being put into place, what is still being put in place now, is something completely different from the system of the early 1970s.
What is a producer?
Cahiers: Can one already describe what it will be?
Rivette. I see it from the outside. Maybe there's no precise project ... There are things, it seems, that one no longer wants, but no one is quite ready to admit it ...
Cahiers. What disappeared in the early 1970s are producers, in the strong sense of the term. In your opinion, Tchalgadjieff, what type of producer is he? Did you have a real dialogue with him, or was he rather someone who trusted you and was happy to simply find and manage the finances?
Rivette. I have never encountered the type of production work that directors would really need, that's to say, the American producer. That's something that's completely lacking in France; or if such producers exist, I've never met them. The feeling I have is that there are either people who want to intervene every step of the way, but then they can only flee from directors such as myself (or you have to be Bunuel to work with them, with someone like Silberman. Otherwise, it usually ends very badly, and there are many examples besides Liliane de Kermadec ... ). So there are producers who really intervene. And there's the other type of producer, the kind I worked with. Very few of them, really: two films with Beauregard, four with Stéphane. Céline came together through a series of friendships, and was managed by Barbet Schroeder (if it weren't for him, the film would never have been made) and for the last film, same idea. But these two films are exceptions. I only really know two producers, who took on projects that had more or less clearly defined subjects. With Beauregard, things were all the more clearly defined because he suggested I do the Religieuse -- I had come to him with a different project altogether. Then came the book, the adaptations, the classical project in short. L'Amour fou was just a phrase and became thirty pages. As for Stéphane, on all four projects, he simply trusted me. But both Beauregard and Stéphane took care of financing the project, after that they didn't lose interest in what I was doing, but they had a false position with regards to the filming process, and in the end they didn't intervene enough. Beauregard was prodigiously bored during the shoot. He would find the funds, watch the first rushes, and after that he simply wasn't interested. Stéphane would have liked, I think, to follow the shoot but he was stuck in his office because of financial problems and also perhaps because of a certain reserve. But the producers have it wrong. If someone could be there all the time, alongside the assistant or the director of photography, someone who could provide another perspective and who could discuss things with us without being a watch-dog, well then, why not? Maybe I wouldn't put up with it, but I think it's something that we, I say "we" because I think I'm not the only one, that we have lacked. Because even though we work with a team there are times on the shoot when one feels very much alone.
Cahiers. A producer who doesn't disengage from the project, yet doesn't take on the role of despot, isn't that a bit of a myth? Do you really believe it's possible?
Rivette. Maybe not ... Maybe it's a myth. As described, it's a role that's almost impossible to fill-it would require a saint. But in the last issue of the Cahiers I read the interview with Winkler, where he speaks of his relationship with Scorsese. He describes himself as someone who follows every step of the film, from the initial project to the end, including the actual filming. He isn't absent, it seems, when important questions arise or when there are grave problems on the set ...
Cahiers. But isn't it precisely to avoid this type of problem that certain directors created their own micro-systems, so that they knew they would always land on their feet again? Whereas you-I don't know if you'll recognize yourself in this romantic and extravagant image of yourself-you give the impression that you're someone who says: if we don't land on our feet again, well, too bad!
Rivette. No. Absolutely not! No, no, I have always been convinced, before and after -- not always after -- that the films I was making were films that would find a large audience. When I was filming Noroît, I was persuaded that we were making a huge commercial success, that it was an adventure film that would have great appeal ... When the film didn't come out, when it was considered un-showable ... I was surprised. I don't consider myself ... unfortunately, I'm not very lucid when it comes to the potential success of my projects, my films. That's why it would be nice, even if it's sometimes difficult, to be confronted by the producer. That's no doubt why I like working with Suzanne Schiffman. Officially she's first assistant, but unofficially at first, and then officially, she became co-screenwriter, and often, truth be told, co-director. Her role obviously isn't that of producer, but she's someone who even as she participates in the project can criticize it from the inside, in a constructive manner.
One film in four
Cahiers. Isn't it true that the disappearance of the producer was accompanied by the inflation of the notion of the auteur?
Rivette. The production machine, as if functions today, needs the figure of the auteur. The production machine creates them, doesn't stop creating them, for better or for worse. It needs signatures, but you know that as well as I do. The number of such auteurs who have been created in the past ten years! We did it, too, thirty years ago, we created them, with people like Preminger; although, in a sense, Preminger IS an auteur! Well, in any case, Mizrahi did create a good number and when I say Mizrahi, it's a clear example! And of course Gaumont needs these auteurs created by Mizrahi, these perfect creations who have all the advantages of an auteur and none of the inconveniences ...
Cahiers. People like Comencini ...
Rivette. Comencini, yes, or what Losey became, etc. They are auteurs for promotional purposes. At the same time, this mix is amusing. I am not at all against mixing things, because I believe that cinema always has, and only can, survive on misunderstandings ad chaos. Just as Renoir made nearly three quarters of his greatest pre-war films with more or less shady producers. Now the profession has been frightfully cleaned up; irregularities have not become impossible, fortunately; they still exists, but they are harder and harder to get away with. There are other conditions that promise misunderstandings, and we must hope they will last. The fact that there are fake auteurs ˆ la Comencini, who are grouped together almost on the same level as Bergman, Fellini or Bresson, might enable Bresson to make further films. So long live misunderstandings and long live chaos, because cinema lives only from them! It lives not only on bluff and imposture, but on misunderstanding, really! It started with Birth of a Nation, maybe even before, and it hasn't stopped since, in different forms according to the times, the periods, the circumstances. So I believe the only question that concerns all directors is this: given the circumstances, what misunderstanding can I turn to my profit?
Cahiers. You told us earlier that you were annoyed by what Mankiewicz recently said about producers on television.
Rivette. Yes, because Mankiewicz himself always holds to this kind of producer talk! I only saw part of the Douchet broadcast, but that's what struck me. It's always the same talk, the same as Thalberg: "What are these people who call themselves directors and who juggle lenses and camera movements?" It's the discourse that Hollywood has always held vis-à -vis Welles, for instance. I think that Mankiewicz ascribes to this discourse. It's René Clair, Mankiewicz ... René Clair, Mankiewicz, it's all the same! They are fundamentally screenwriters-producers, and only secondarily directors. It's normal that he should be against Thalberg, that is against his boss and not against the producer because he is the producer. He was a producer before the war and he has been the producer of most of his films. The conflict with Cléopatre is also a conflict with Zanuck, the big boss.
I still think that Eve is a failed Broadway piece, and that it's not for nothing that he left after the first scene of Cocteau's Monstres sacrés (which by the way is not a good Cocteau film) because as I see it, the first scene is so powerful that one cannot write the ending, of if one does, one is doomed to churn out a scenario à la Bernstein. Either one drops the subject, or one ends up with something as bad as the third act of Monstres sacrés or the final scenes between Sanders and Anne Baxter, of which I have a horrific memory. The truth is, I really liked Mankiewicz's films from the 50s, and when I saw some of them again, it was maybe in passionate circumstances ... I know that was the case for Eve. I was working on a project with Jeanne Moreau and Juliet Berto where the first scene was that of Monstres sacrés, and when I saw Mankiewicz's film again at that time at the Cinémathèque, I was deeply disconcerted because I was immersed in my project. So of course, I reacted violently.
Cahiers. When you see films, or see them again, you always react very passionately. I always have the feeling that you're interested in all of cinema, not only the "great" films, auteur films.
Rivette. It depends, as for all of us! There are periods when I'm more open than others ... There is one thing that one never talks about, or rarely: the possibility of seeing a bad film, solely because one sees it in a particular state, on a particular day, at a particular time ... One always speaks of films as if they were absolutes; yet we always see them in particular circumstance, be it only because of the different projection conditions of each theatre. All that matters enormously. So, it often happens that I see a film I know has objective value and yet sit through it absolutely bored even though I know, at the moment I'm watching it, that I will find it remarkable if I watch it again in three months time; and vice versa ... In other words there is a pulp aspect to cinema, that shouldn't be lost. I mean that in "pulp literature" one also, suddenly, comes across the "Série noire," Simenon and others... there is always a moment where literature recognizes its own. And one of the strengths of cinema has been that great mix, and it's thanks to this that Renoir could make films in the pre-war period, because they were presented as films by Duvivier ... To come back to your question, people who go to, say, one film every two weeks and tell themselves, "I will see the great films, but not the others, not the commercial movies," I think those people have no chance of really seeing cinema. I think that cinema is only accessible to those who accept that they must consume the "mainstream." On the other hand, the consumers of mainstream cinema who reject Duras, Bresson, Straub or Schroeter, are also people who refuse cinema. That said, it's a question of lifestyle: there are those whose daily schedule includes two hours to watch a movie, others who prefer to read, or listen to music.
Cahiers. You are, as far as we know, one of the persons who watches the most films, who frequents the most obscure theatres. And television?
Rivette. I have no relation with television. It's not a willed refusal. First, because I'm never at home; there too, it's a question of lifestyle. I have on occasion seen films on television at friends' homes, and since I'm not used to it, I've always had the impression that I was not watching the film, that I was seeing something else, a reflection . . . It was not a real connection! I agree with what Eustache says, television is great for a second viewing, but not for discovering a film. It's a bit like seeing a film again on the editing table. And when I speak with people who've seen on television a film I saw earlier on the screen, I always have the impression that they haven't seen quite the same film, but maybe that's wrong ...
Cahiers. With tape-recorders and cassettes, one can establish a new relationship to film. I imagine that someone could decide to watch again only one scene of a film he likes, for example the airplane scene in La Mort aux trousses ... That creates a new relation to the film, a little crazy, a little suspect, rather anti-cultural.
Rivette. It's not at all anti-cultural. On the contrary, I think that's what cinematic culture really is.
Cahiers. Isn't seeing too many fims a little stultifying?
Rivette. I don't think so. Why?
Cahiers. Because the weight of cinephilia seems to inhibit many young directors.
Rivette. I think it's inhibiting because they haven't seen many films. The people who were the most influenced by Resnais, Godard, it's because they discovered cinema with them, without seeing them in the midst of all the American films that one imbibed earlier, that and the weight of the Cinémathèque. They were born to cinema with Renoir and Godard, in a sense. Of course that must be inhibiting!
Cahiers. When you see a film, do you put yourself in the position of the director: "Let's see, I would have done this like that"?
Rivette. There's no rule ... one always does it a bit, especially with French films, because we are closer to them than to American movies which always remain, even now, further removed, somewhat mythical.
Cahiers. It seems to us that there are two poles in your cinema. One hyper-organized, codified, and the other more laissez-faire. Noroît would belong to the first and Merry-Go-Round to the latter. Rivette. Merry-Go-Round is the only time it really happened that way. For L'Amour fou and Out One, we had a precise project. Not so for Merry-Go-Round. For L'Amour fou, which rapidly became a thirty-page narrative, all the details of the film were improvised as we went along, but the general line had been conceived from the beginning, we had talked about it at length with the actors, Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Kalfon. It took root, it developed in all directions. Out One also had a very precise structure-the relations between the people, their work; only the ending was left blank, open, and we filmed it on the last days, based on the what had gone before.
Merry-Go-Round on the other hand was, at the beginning, simply a matter of economic necessity, linked to the four-film series we'd proposed to the Centre at the beginning of 1975. It came just after Céline et Julie and the project was then simply called "Les filles de feu," a label, no more ... I overestimated my strength. More precisely, I continue to think that the project was attractive and feasible but I was not able to see it through, since the idea was to make four films with no direct relation to each other, except for certain actresses who would have evolved such that if one played the lead role in one film, she would play a minor role in the other, and so forth. The relation between the four films was very vague, the frame was very hazy ... There was a progression from one film to the next, of progressive complications, linked to the effect of the music on the action. Each film had a greater or lesser link to a particular genre: the first was a love story, the second draws on the fantasy genre, the third started out as a sort of western, an adventure film, and the fourth was to be a musical comedy. We began with number two: it was the screenplay that had taken shape the fastest, the actors were there, and I imperatively wanted to exploit the winter theme. That was Duelle. We continued with number three, after just one month's pause, Noroît, the western-turned-adventure flick, and a month later, in August, we began filming the first of the four, the love story, and that's when, quite simply, I broke down physically. As I said, I had overestimated my own strength.
Cahiers. With whom were you working?
Rivette. With Eduardo de Gregorio, Marilù Parolini and Bertrand van Effenterre. Eduardo was the most energetic interlocutor, but the others also played an important role ... As for number four, the musical comedy I wanted to film with Anna Karina in the lead role, it remained rather vague; we had many ideas but we had started on a screenplay that wasn't very good, a very bad starting point and that's why we pushed back the film till the following year. All the more so because with number one, we already knew we were no longer holding up. I really regret it, because I don't know if the film would have been good, but I liked the subject and the two actors too: Leslie Caron and Albert Finney. And so two years later (by which time the money for the two films had disappeared elsewhere, very precisely on Bresson), Stéphane Tchalgadjieff found himself in front of the Commission on Advances, to report on the contract we had signed for the four films, having to account for the two films that had not been made. He finally struck a deal whereby we only had to make one film instead of two. The Centre wanted either the first, aborted film, or the fourth of the group "Filles du feu, scènes de la vie parallèle." But as far as I was concerned, there was no way it would be either of these two projects, and so it became Merry-Go-Round, which was a different project altogether. It so happened that Stéphane had been in contact with Maria Schneider: he had proposed her for another film that she turned downed, saying however that if Rivette wanted to make a film, she would accept. So we started with that idea, with Maria. I met her and asked her if there was an actor she would like to work with. She told me Joe Dallessandro. And so a month before we began filming, I didn't know either actor, we started work with the two actors, and after 8 days, things were going very badly. It was like a machine that, once set in motion, must continue running despite changing regimes, forced or arbitrary accelerations, until the energy was all burned up, exhausted. That's not at all how we filmed L'Amour fou, even if there too, the spectator feels he's witnessing an encounter. I had seen both shows by Marc'O, "Les Bargasses" first and then "Les Idoles." "Les Bargasses" made such an impression on me that I asked Bulle Ogier to play a supporting role in La Religieuse, but she couldn't because she was already working on "Les Idoles." But the project was in place and very quickly took a shape that we never questioned. We filmed the scenes we had planned. It developed but it didn't change. Cahiers. So Merry-Go-Round is unique? Rivette. With Merry-Go-Round everything changed. It's an exaggeration to say that we placed Maria and Joe together in front of the camera and waited to see what would happen. We had a starting point of course, and then we made up the beginning of a story, with a father who had disappeared, but all along we told ourselves, this is just a pretext for Maria and Joe to get to know each other.
I like that idea: two people get together because a third, who has arranged to meet them, does not show up. There have no choice but to get to know each other. It's a situation I imagined in the context of the Resistance. Thinking about it again later, I think it was the subject of Robert Hossein's Nuit des espions. And since I didn't feel like making a film about the Resistance or the terrorist underground, it became that more banal situation, two people convoked by a third who is only the sister of the one and the girlfriend of the other. But since the relationship between Maria and Joe rapidly became hostile, we were forced to develop the story-line; from a mere pretext it took on a disproportionate importance. Maybe that gives the film a certain vagabond charm, I don't know, but it really is a film with a first half-hour that's quite coherent, and then it searches for itself three times, three times searches for a way out... (to be continued)
(Interview by Serge Daney and Jean Narboni)
Originally appeared in Cahiers du Cinema 323-324 (May-June 1981): p. 42-9. Translated by Louisa Shea.